La Scena Musicale

Monday, 6 January 2014

Bravissimo a Scintillating Farewell to 2013

Bravissimo a Scintillating Farewell to 2013 (Review)

- Joseph So

Erika Sunnegardh, soprano
Rebecca Nelsen, soprano
Wallis Giunta, mezzo
Emanuele D'Aguanno, tenor
James Westman, baritone
Chorus Niagara and Orpheus Choir / Robert Cooper, director
Opera Canada Symphony / Roberto Pasternostro, conductor
Roy Thomson Hall, Tuesday December 31 7 pm.

Overture to Nabucco
Tacea la notte placida - Il Trovatore / Sunnegardh
Non si da follia maggiore - Il Turco in Italia  / Nelsen
Non piu mesta - La cenerentola / Giunta
Va pensiero - Nabucco / Chorus
Va pour Kleinzach - Les contes d'Hoffmann / D'Aguanno
Yeletsky's Aria - Pique Dame / Westman
Mira, o Norma - Norma/ Sunnegardh and Giunta
Carlo-Rodrigo Duet Act One - Don Carlos/ D'Aguanno and Westman
Chacun le sait - La fille du regiment / Nelsen
Triumphal March - Aida / Chorus
Entry of the Guests - Tannhauser / Chorus
O du, mein holder Abendstern - Tannhauser / Westman
Je veux vivre - Romeo et Juliette / Nelsen
Parto, parto - La clemenza  di Tito / Giunta
In questa Reggia - Turandot / Sunnegardh
Nessun dorma - Turandot /  D'Aguanno
Fiordiligi-Dorabella Act 1 duet - Cosi fan tutte / Nelsen, Giunta
Leonora-di Luna Act 3 duet - Il Trovatore / Sunnegardh, Westman

Encores - Libiamo - La traviata and Auld lang syne

(l. to r.) Wallis Giunta, Emanuele D'Aguanno, Roberto Paternostro, Rebecca Nelsen, James Westman, Erika Sunnegardh taking a bow (Photo: Joseph So) 

Now in its 6th year, Bravissimo is a New Year's Eve venue of choice for opera lovers. It is the brainchild of Attila and Marion Glatz of Glatz Concert Productions, the impresarios also responsible for New Year's Day Salute to Vienna. It is a program of 'opera's greatest hits', meant to provide a sort of 'easy-listening', feel-good evening of arias and and duets while ushering in the new year. I've been attending this annual show for the last few years and I've always been entertained. Bravissimo 2013 was one of the strongest yet musically, with five terrific soloists, all in their prime and all with lovely voices and attractive stage presence. This is a good way to discover singers who may not have sung in the Toronto area, as well as getting re-acquainted with others who have made a splash locally in the past. This year's cast included two Canadian stars - baritone James Westman and mezzo Wallis Giunta.  Westman was most recently heard as soloist in Carmina Burana with the Toronto Symphony, plus a rip-roaring star turn as Frank in the COC Die Fledermaus. Giunta, a former Ensemble Studio member, returns to the Company as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte later this month. Swedish-American soprano Erika Sunnegardh was a marvelous Salome last season, and Italian tenor Emanuele D'Aguranno was Cassio in Otello four seasons ago. Rounding out the cast was American soprano Rebecca Nelsen, a voice new to Toronto audiences. Strangely American Nelsen is billed as from Austria, though her career has been almost entirely European based, primarily at the Wiener Volksoper. For the first time, there was a 100 voice chorus - combining Chorus Niagara and Orpheus Choir under the direction of Robert Cooper. The maestro was veteran conductor Roberto Paternostro. While Salute to Vienna has been consistently selling out the last few years, Bravissimo's attendance has been steadily on the rise. This time, the audience was treated to an uncommonly fine evening of vocalism.

Two Canadians - baritone James Westman and mezzo Wallis Giunta (Photo: Joseph So) 

Typically of these events, the Opera Canada Symphony was really a pickup orchestra, made up mostly of local orchestral musicians free-lancing, all experienced artists capable of beautiful music-making. As in previous years, the Concertmaster was violinist Marie Berard, who serves in the same capacity for the Canadian Opera Company.  The orchestra kicked off the proceedings with an energetic reading of the overture to Nabucco, not terribly subtle but perfectly idiomatic. This was followed by Sunnegardh's "Tacea la notte placida".  Sunnegardh's voice is what the German fach system would call a "youthful dramatic soprano." Her tone is rich, well focused, somewhat steely, with a cool timbre and a laser-beam top ideal in Salome and Turandot, as opposed to the bel canto roles the likes of Leonora and Norma. But she was able to scale her voice down for Leonora's aria, and for the "Mira O Norma" duet with Giunta. There was some tentativeness at first in the Trovatore aria, and the tempo was on the slow side, but overall the singing was beautiful. Her 'Mira O Norma' with Giunta was also lovely, with their voices blending very well. Giunta's high mezzo makes an ideal Adalgisa, as the two singers' timbres are similar. They sang their duet passages with beauty and precision, if somewhat cautiously. Perhaps due to insufficient rehearsals that is typical of these type of events, there was a miscue by the mezzo at the beginning of the cabaletta with the words "Cedi, Deh cedi..." Despite this blemish, it was one of the highlights of the first half, where Giunta also contributed a pert Non piu mesta from La cenerentola.  

MC  Rick Phillips and Chorus master Robert Cooper joins in the singing of Auld lang syne (Photo: Joseph So) 

Since Italian tenor Emanuele D'Aguanno's last appearance here as Cassio in Otello, the voice has grown larger and darker, with a more substantial middle range, yet the top remains secure and ringing. As a warm up, he began with Kleinzach's aria from Hoffmann Act 1, ably supported by the men's chorus. This was followed by the Carlo-Rodrigo duet (with several cuts) from Act 1 Don Carlo, well sung by the tenor and baritone James Westman, with exemplary Italianate style. In the second half, D'Aguanno brought the house down with Calaf's Nessun dorma. This has become something of a failsafe hit in gala concerts. Here D'Aguanno was very impressive, singing with firm tone and an excellent top range. Perhaps the biggest hit of the evening was American soprano Rebecca Nelsen, who combined a pleasing lyric-coloratura with an exuberant stage personality. Her aria from Turco in Italia was nice, but nothing prepared us for Marie's "Chacun le sait" where she accompanied herself, on the trumpet! Yes there were a few sour notes from the trumpet but no matter - it was just this kind of high jinks that really got the audience going. The first half came to a rousing close with the Triumphal March from Aida. Veteran conductor Paternostro led the forces with a firm hand.     

Hamming it up in Libiamo (l. to. r.) Wallis Giunta, Emanuele D'Aguanno, Rebecca Nelsen (Photo: Joseph So) 

The second half opened with the "Entry of the Guests" in Act 1 Scene 2 of Tannhauser. I half expected Sunnegardh to follow with "Dich, teure Halle" but no such luck!  Too bad, as Elisabeth is perfect for her jugenliche-dramatischer sopran. Instead we had James Westman singing a warm and ingratiating "O du mein holder Abendstern".  He would make a great Wolfram, if he ever were to leave his Verdi baritone repertoire and move into Wagner. Then it's Ms. Nelsen again with Juliette's aria, sung with a surfeit of effervescence. Wallis Giunta offered an excellent "Parto, parto" from La clemenza di Tito, a real test piece for the high mezzo. She later teamed with Nelsen for the Fiordiligi-Dorabella duet from Cosi. You can catch Giunta as Dorabella at the COC later this month and next. Sunnegardh was at her very best in In questa Reggia from Turandot, sung with blazing high notes, and her cool timbre ideal as the ice princess. It really makes one wonder why Swedish sopranos, from Nilsson and Varnay in the past to Irene Theorin and Nina Stemme today, have such amazing top notes!  The final lines in this piece is really a duet with Calaf, here supplied by D'Aguanno, a tenor with an excellent top. But he was no match for Sunnegardh whose high C completely obliterated his. The formal part of the program ended with the Leonora-di Luna extended duet from Il Trovatore. There were a few cuts, and sadly "Miserere" was not included at the start, a missed opportunity given the presence of the terrific choral forces. But what was there was hugely enjoyable, with both singers in top form. The tentativeness in Sunnegardh's Leonora completely disappeared and she was matched note for note by the di Luna of Westman, arguably his best Verdi baritone role. Needless to say they were greeted with salvos of ovations, well deserved I might add. The audience was rewarded with the obligatory "Libiamo" from La traviata, and finally Auld lang syne, with everyone joining in, a great musical end to 2013.  

The droll James Westman with COC Salome Erika Sunnegardh in Auld lang syne (Photo: Joseph So)

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